tamberg's Blog

2012-02-02 by tamberg

Gadgeteer Modular Hardware

Gadgeteer – an open system to build modular, Internet-connected devices, invented by Microsoft Research in Cambridge – really got into my focus when Cuno ordered the first commercially available modules from GHI, Seeed Studio and Sytech, while Beat started creating his STM32 ARM based Gadgeteer mainboard with Ethernet.

You might argue that electronics have been modular for a long time but this type of macro modularization with standardized connectors and IDE designer support takes the concept to another level. I've been excited about the Modu phone, followed the Java/OSGi-based Bug Labs project and looked at the Phidgets sensor platform, but never felt a real urge to use any of them. The first two were too coarse-grained and therefore limited the design space. The latter was the proprietary product of a single manufacturer and therefore quite expensive. Gadgeteer is based on the .NET Micro Framework which allows programming in C#, a main stream language. Simple PCB layout conventions let commercial providers and tinkerers build cheap modules that are not self-aware (which would require expensive chips on every module) but have a "software shadow" in the IDE. The decision to force mounting holes on a fixed, 5 by 5mm raster allows easy mounting. Rather than coming in a casing like BugLabs, the modules are bare bones and connected with flexible cables to enable using them with a custom made, laser-cut or 3D printed case. All those points together promise to significantly lower the barrier to designing custom devices. The Gadgeteer "Hello World" is a photo camera complete with a full color LCD display. Read that again.

In almost no time, it was perfectly feasible to build a Web-cam, a joystick operated game, a water level meter with daisy-chained LEDs and a Wu-tang name generator in a Chumby-like form factor. Of course, Gadgeteer is by no means the only viable approach. Other modular approaches include littleBits for electronics, TinkerForge, the Arduino-based Teagueduino, spatially configurable snap-together boxes named B-Squares, and Bildr, a modular approach to documenting electronics projects. But if the Gadgeteer ecosystem keeps growing and the prices for mainboards drop even further, this might quickly become my favorite hardware platform to build devices for the Internet of Things.